As I pulled out of the studio parking lot this afternoon to head home after training, it occurred to me how incredibly lucky I am. Today was just the fourth day of these three weeks with Swenson and, already, my understanding of Ashtanga has evolved so much.
We (the students) are teaching more and more of the practice each day. David is handing us bits of Primary from either end, beginning with standing and finishing, then moving toward the middle. Tomorrow morning, we will lead a partner through an entire half-Primary practice (to Navasana). I had wondered, heading into this experience, how well a regular practice of Ashtanga would translate to teaching ability, particularly since teaching Vinyasa turned out to be so much harder than I could have anticipated despite any number of countless hours I had spent on the mat myself. Fortunately, I am finding that teaching Ashtanga comes relatively easily. The rhythm of the practice is deeply etched into my brain, and the direct, minimalist method suits me better than the nearly constant verbal instruction of Vinyasa flow.
We spend a lot of time in the studio doing partner work, one person assumes the role of teacher and the other is the student, then we switch. It has been interesting to observe another closely in his or her practice, and not merely to observe but to be a participant, a facilitating force. The variety of adjustments we are learning, many of which I have never received, have done a great deal to demystify the Mysore teacher's role in my mind. As a bonus, I was able to use a few of the adjustments in class on Monday night with satisfying results for my students. I can feel the workman's belt of teaching tools growing weightier around my hips.
I am also learning lots of ways to tidy up my own practice (figured out the lotus jump back!) and, more importantly, to make it more sustainable. If there is one thing that David seems to emphasize again and again, it is the importance of the sustainability of one's personal practice over advancement through the series. So how does one make the practice more sustainable? By holding back. If you are able to haul your body through every jump back and jump through of Primary but it takes every last bit of energy you've got, then don't do it. One of my favorite teachers once said this to me about my practice and I try to think of it every day: "Don't give it all away. Keep a little something for yourself." Sounds like something my mother would say.
I sometimes wonder, when I wake to a sore and tired body or feel an aversion to my mat, "How long can I keep this up? Ashtanga is hard!" But the truth of it is that Ashtanga is not hard. My practice is hard. The way that I practice is hard. Ashtanga is merely a set series of postures, how one moves through the postures is entirely up to the practitioner. But holding back is not easy. It is much simpler for me to stay in the meditation if my thoughts are obliterated by sensation than if the sensation is mild and the body is soft. So, as I have grown stronger and more open, rather than enjoying the fruits of my labor in comfortable, sustainable postures, I have developed a habit of going further in search of that sensation until the softness of the posture is lost.
I say this with no sense of pride: I have never not once skipped a vinyasa in my personal practice with ONE exception. For a while there I omitted the one between Paschimottanasana and Purvottanasana to save time. But that's it... except, of course, for rare occasions when I don't have enough time for a full practice. In that case, I do a bare-bones Primary which involves a variety of creative shortcuts. And I've "forgotten" that last one before Savasana more times than I care to admit.
Okay... so maybe I have skipped a vinyasa or two in my time. The point is that I don't do it often. Yesterday, my training partner, a local Vinyasa instructor, remarked as he led me through a practice, "You're one of those Ashtangis I've heard about." I laughed and confirmed that, indeed, I am one of those Ashtangis. I always give the practice everything I've got, and even though I stay with the breath, I am overworking the body. It's time to scale back the effort and bring a little more ease to this balance.